In order to earn a spot at the state volleyball tournament for a record 24th time, the Marshall Tigers needed to find another scoring option.
They knew that Kenzie Beekman, their kills leader in 2011, was returning, but the Tigers saw their next two most proficient attackers make the leap to collegiate volleyball.
But in the place of Jessica Baker's 217 kills and Morgan McKittrick's 339, setter Sydney Griffin has learned to thrive in Marshall's 6-2 offense.
Independent file photo
Marshall junior Sydney Griffin (2) celebrates with her Tiger teammates after Marshall won a point during the third set of the Section 3AA championship match against Jackson County Central Saturday at the R/A Facility at Southwest Minnesota State University. Griffin had 14 set assists, 14 digs, eight kills and was 10 of 10 serving in the Tigers’ sweep of the Huskies.
"I think she knew coming into the season that she would have a big role and she's done really well," Beekman said.
Knowing that the attacking burden would likely fall to her, Griffin spent the summer working on her hitting. The results: she has nearly doubled her kill totals from a year ago (from 155 to 247), while seeing only a marginal decline in her set assist totals.
"I knew, because we lost two of our big hitters in Jessica and Morgan, that it would be a big duty for me this year," Griffin said. "I just tried to work hard over the summer to accomplish that."
For her coach, Dan Westby, the emergence of Griffin as an attacking threat has been taking place kill by kill as the season progressed.
"I think one of the things she's really improved on is her skill as a hitter," Westby said. "We certainly needed her to do that. She's just become so much more comfortable, and I think she's a lot more willing to go up and take a good swing, whereas early in the year she wasn't doing that."
The culmination of the increased confidence and improved skill was a 20-kill performance against Montevideo in the Section 3AA-North sub-section finals, a game Beekman missed with a sprained ankle.
"In the Montevideo game I knew I had to step it up because Kenzie was hurt. That's kind of what my thought was going into the game," Griffin said.
Her coach was also impressed by her play against the Thunder Hawks, who had no answer for the 5-foot-11 junior.
"I think she really elevated her play during that Montevideo match in section play," Westby said. "I would guess part of that stems from the fact that Kenzie didn't play. You always hear the term, 'you have to step up,' and she certainly did that night."
The Tigers followed up the win over Montevideo with a 3-0 sweep of sixth-ranked Jackson County Central to earn their 12th consecutive trip to the Xcel Energy Center.
When they arrive in St. Paul, the top-seeded Tigers know that they will have a target on their back. A familiar feeling seeing as the Tigers are the defending Class AA champions and have held the No. 1 ranking in the polls all season.
"That's not easy to shoulder that all year, and I think our kids have handled that pretty well," Westby said. "We've never really considered those rankings. It's that old thing, all those rankings mean is that a team is going to play hard against you. And that certainly has been the case. I think our kids have handled it pretty well. They continue to come to practice and work hard, they haven't been complacent in what they've done."
Adding to the degree of difficulty for the Tigers has been their treacherous schedule. Marshall has five games against teams that also qualified for the state tournament, going 3-2 in that time. The two losses were both to Class AAA's top seed Lakeville North.
"We've always been fortunate that we've played a difficult schedule here," Westby said. "We really beefed up our schedule back in the early 2000's when Mr. (Terry) Culhane was the coach here. And we've done a pretty good job of adding some difficult opponents. That combined with the fact that we've always had a couple teams in our conference that have always been pretty strong. So that helps us come tournament time."
Marshall's first opponent at the state tournament will be the Mora Mustangs, who are making their first appearance at state since 1998. The Section 7AA champions compiled a 24-7 record on the season, while their play on the court reminds Westby a bit of his own team.
"They've got a couple kids that go up and put a good swing on the ball, and those kids are very aggressive," Westby said. "Another thing that they do very well is they're very aggressive from the serving line. Serving-wise, I think we've got a lot in common, and I think its going to come down to some other things like who passes better. We've always felt like if we can pass the ball, we'll be able to hang around and play with anybody."